The image of Carlos Bianchi, with his trademark white hair and beaming smile holding aloft the FIFA Club World Championship trophy has become synonymous with the Japanese winter. The legendary coach, winner of the competition (now known as the Toyota Cup) on three of the four occasions he has contested it, talked exclusively with FIFA.com about a tournament he knows like few others, and how he went about preparing his winning sides. He also shared his vision for the tournament that will replace it in 2005: the FIFA Club World Championship, and just what this competition means to South American football.
The 55-year-old Viceroy, as Bianchi is known in footballing circles, has frequently tasted the fruits of success. A ruthless goalscorer in his playing days, the one-time newspaper salesman made the transition from player to manager after hanging up his boots and within ten years had become the most successful coach in South America. His list of honours makes for very impressive reading: 7 Argentine league titles, 1 Copa Interamericana, 4 Copa Libertadores and 3 Copa Intercontinentales. Now with the latter set to be played for the last time, Bianchi looks back at an enthralling tournament that provided his sides with historic wins over the mighty AC Milan and Real Madrid.
Señor Bianchi, you have become something of an expert on Intercontinental finals. What does it feel like as a coach to take part in such a huge game?
As a coach, you want to prove that you and your team are capable of reaching the next level. Facing the European champions with their star-studded internationals and often-limitless financial clout is extremely motivating for us South Americans. What it all boils down to is a battle between self-belief and power.
Physically and psychologically speaking, how does one prepare for such a game, given the abnormal conditions that teams travelling from South America face?
I always made a point of arriving six or seven days before the match. The idea was to give as much time as possible to the squad to get used to the place and to allow them to go into the game in as near as normal condition as possible. You must remember that for us South Americans, it was a trip of more than 30 hours to the Far East, and that's before you take into consideration the 12-hour time difference. While the food did not present major problems, the tournament coincided with the end of our football season. That meant training had to be fairly light and mostly tactical.
Did you recommend that the players modify their eating habits? Also, how did you deal with the time difference and changes to the squad's sleeping patterns?
We didn't change a single thing. From the moment we touched down in Tokyo, we fell in with the normal rhythms of the city.
What did it feel like to visit Japan for your first tournament?
To be honest, given the importance of the game, we had very little interest in getting to know the city. The language barrier makes things even more difficult.
What impression did you get of the Japanese public, and who did they generally cheer for?
The Japanese people are very respectful and upstanding. As they knew the European players better, the majority were cheering on AC Milan and Real Madrid. Having said that, we also had our supporters there and they made themselves heard from start to finish.
You have won the trophy three times from four attempts. What is the secret?
The key is knowing that both sides have an equal chance of wining. Of course, it's also necessary to have intelligent players and men who are prepared to stand up and be counted.
Which of your three titles do you remember most?
I remember them all for different reasons: how old we were, the period the club was in and the titles we had previously won as a team. With Boca Juniors, for example, you knew that half the country was willing you on. But to think that a modest Buenos Aires side like Vélez Sarsfield, with no more than 200,000 supporters, could become world champion! That truly is the stuff of dreams.
You lived for a long time in Europe. Do you agree with those that say the tournament is taken more seriously in South America?
No, I don't. What's true is that the European sides try and talk down the competition whenever they lose. I saw the 1996 final in Rome between Juventus and River Plate and after the Italians had won, the players celebrated wildly and the result made front-page headlines. Even Paolo Maldini, who is a great player and someone I have the utmost respect for, said before the 2003 tournament that the defeat he suffered at the hands of Vélez Sarsfield in 1994 still rankled.
In South America, you can see the Champions League live on TV. Is it an advantage for your countrymen, for example, to be able to study the European sides so closely?
I don't think so. In Europe you can also watch the Copa Libertadores. Also, given the means at their disposal, the big clubs can easily afford to send someone over here to scout out the opposition for a month or so. There are countless ways to get the videos of all the games your rival has played in the competition. If you haven't done your homework on the opposition then you don't deserve to be in such an important game.
The FIFA Club World Championship will bring together the winners from all six confederations. Do you think that will make it a more representative tournament?
Yes, it's possible. But don't forget that the South Americans will be facing the same challenges like the weather. For us, our summer is usually 25 to 35 degrees, while in Tokyo it's winter and the temperature goes from a high of 10 degrees to around freezing.
Going back to your playing days, do you remember much about the competition when it was still a two-legged home and away affair? Also, did you get to see any of the games in the stadiums?
No, not a chance. I just remember watching the games on the TV back then.
How did you feel about the tournament when your were a player? Did you long to take part and make your mark in Europe like many of your era?
For sure, but I never had the chance to play in the tournaments with the champions. In 1968, when I won the title with Vélez, the club decided not to take part in the following season's competition. That's why in 1994, I concentrated on the South American Cup, to the detriment of the league, so that Vélez could write a glorious chapter in their international football history.